What do a cookie sheet and magnetic letters have in common?
Wait. Whats a cookie sheet?
Teaching American literacy lessons while being culturally sensitive to populations in Malawi presented a few challenges recently for a group of mostly local teachers. Heather F. White, a kindergarten teacher at Sherman Elementary School; Renee G. Waterbury, a first-grade teacher at Sherman; Rita A. Gefell, a teaching assistant in the Carthage Central School District, and Sue Remington, a first-grade teacher in Colorado, went on a 10-day learning adventure in the African country to advise Malawian teachers on ways to educate their students about early literacy.
Thanks to a $34,000, three-year grant from the Presbyterian Women organization of the Presbyterian Church USA, the group of women was able to explain unusual learning ideas through the Keys to Education program to help young Malawian children become literate. The women are founders or supporters of the Women of Grace Widows fund, to which the grant was awarded.
One lesson involved putting magnetic letters on a cookie sheet to form words, and when Malawian teachers saw the letters stuck to the object, Mrs. White said, the lesson went from magnetic to magic.
We literally had people jump out of their seats women, men and elders, she said. We were so humbled.
Malawian teachers didnt know what a cookie sheet was because most still cook over an open flame outside their home, Mrs. White said.
There are also no smart boards, iPads, white boards or similar devices for teaching. Instead, Malawian children practice writing words they learn on the dirt floor or their friends back if there is no paper or blackboard in the classroom.
Schools in Malawi dont have thousands of square feet of space or multiple levels, like schools in the United States. Most Malawian schools are one-room wooden long houses. Most have no windows, one entrance and a dirt floor. Few have blackboards, desks or chairs and almost all have no storage space or any teaching materials to store. With the help of the Malawian government and donations from U.S. groups, small brick long houses are being constructed with windows.
While $34,000 may not sound like a lot to some people, it translates into about 8.5 million kwacha, the Malawian currency. With the groups first trip to Malawi, it brought some cookie sheets and magnetic letters, numbers and alphabet charts, pocket charts to keep laminated letters and numbers in, chalk and books, among other resources. Money was left for lockers to be built in classrooms to store materials provided and to refurbish blackboards.
Mrs. White said she and the other American teachers held workshops for the Malawian teachers, some of whom walked several hours to get to them. The groups focus has been on a private nursery school, a primary school and a Catholic school in Mzuzu and other schools in the bush.
As part of the Keys to Education program, Malawian teachers will provide feedback every three months to tell Mrs. White, Mrs. Waterbury, Mrs. Gefell and Mrs. Remington what is or isnt working and to understand additional materials needed, if any.
These teachers have never had training like this, Mrs. White said. To watch them gain a sense of them feeling empowered, I just wish I was there for the first day of school.
A couple of the American teachers will return next year and the year after to improve the program, and make sure all 32 Malawian teachers involved are making progress and children are understanding each concept.
The focus on literacy is a first for the Women of Grace Widows Fund, which has provided and continues to provide grants or micro loans to help Malawian widows start small businesses and become self-sufficient.